Selling out is great for bands…who don't really want to be in bands

Miles Raymer attempts to defend “selling out” in this week’s Chicago Reader. I admire the contraiainist effort, but he never quite justifies why more commercial usage of music “might be just what the music industry needs.” Artists have been offering begrudging nods to commercial licensing for a few years now, ever since Moby showed it was both financially rewarding, and didn’t lead to becoming a complete asshole in the process. But this newish aspect of music labels’ business plans hasn’t exactly infused them with scads of cash, as Raymer notes.

So it’s not exactly reaping a whirlwind for labels, but it’s obviously helping new bands find an audience, right? Well, no. The reason why is simple: licensing music for commercial purposes doesn’t create new fans for a band, it only associates the band with a moment in time, or with a particular movement, which makes it all the easier for any new fans they’ve acquired to move on when the moment is over.

There’s a much longer post to be written on just this point, but music – particularly the big tent that the term “indie rock music” has come to represent – is much more commodified now than it ever was before. Where it used to be that a certain segment of the population sought out the hot new restaurant or the hipper-than-thou nightclub as a way to show they were on the cutting edge of what was “in,” this same segment now accomplishes that by seeking out information about which bands are being touted as the next big thing.

It’s easier to do that now because the information about which bands are new and breaking is everywhere, and not spread by word-of-mouth or via record stores that most folks wouldn’t step foot in. It would be fine if this kind of re-purposing of music were merely confined to commerce, but the problem is that these people are showing up at live shows as well, with little respect for the culture created around it. (If Wilco wants to “get the music out there,” good for them. But if they do it by selling off their tunes to car companies, they shouldn’t be surprised if more guys like this start coming to their shows.)

When you directly associate your music with commerce – that is, when the music is used to sell something other than an album, CD or MP3 – it’s likely that the audience you reach will associate it that way, as well. Therefore, your music becomes nothing more than a plate of grilled salmon, a gin and tonic, or a pair of trendy new jeans. It’s something to be consumed at that time, without much thought given to it after it’s outlived its utility.

So licensing ultimately fails to expand or develop an audience. I know that many people thought that Moby allowing the majority of his Play album to be used for commercial purposes was a bold way of reaching a wider audience, but a few years on and that new audience of his has all but disappeared, leaving him struggling to sign with a label until recently. The Shins – an example Raymer uses to illustrate the positive effects of “selling out” – will probably never escape its Garden State association, and will probably rise and fall depending on how long the “Braff rock” trend lasts.

The band The Caesars went from being a never-were to a has-been in the blink of an eye, despite the ubiquity of its single “Jerk It Out,” first heard in iPod commercials. The Servant had a song called “Cells” in the trailer for Sin City, but it didn’t help its next album “How To Destroy A Relationship” get a U.S. release. Bodyrockers’ song “I Like The Way” was used in a Diet Coke ad, the show Las Vegas, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2005. In fact, you probably know the song without even realizing it. Listen to it at their website, and you’ll probably find yourself saying “Oh that song!” like I did. Yet the name “Bodyrockers” meant nothing to me, and probably means nothing to a lot of other people since their self-titled album is also only available on import, and the News section of their site has been sorely lacking any if it since December of 2005.

And bands with a built-in audience should perhaps be wary of going the commercial route, too. Wilco certainly took it on the chin from their long-time fans. Sonic Youth can justify selling CDs through Starbucks and re-release its classic albums all it wants, but its audience isn’t fooled. (Perhaps as Jessica Hopper goes, so goes the Daydream Nation?)

I’m not denying that a band allowing its music to be used in a commercial is a good way to get a short-term infusion of cash. Raymer’s best argument in the piece is that if bands that make a living through music “can’t stay safely in the black by playing gigs or selling records, some of them are bound to choose licensing deals and sponsorships over day jobs or credit-card debt.” I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing if letting Volkswagen use my songs meant I could devote my life to making music. But I don’t think it would. More likely, it means your band will be no more memorable to the average listener than the can of Coke they just tossed in the trash. And rather than allow you to leave that day job and devote your life to creating music, it’s more likely to leave you still trying to sell your latest CD to uninterested audiences, only this time you’ll be selling it to them with an orange crème frappuccino.

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